The Other Beach

Last weekend while manning my vice at the show I was asked about identifying the wood used on handles.

Let me state for the record, I am not a traditionalist type woodworker that recognizes species by just looking at the bark or leaf. Mind you, it’s on my bucket list, a few lines after I move to Alaska and follow in the footsteps of Dick Proenneke.

That said, the woodworkers of yore must have foreseen the modernization of lumber production and narrowed down the woods used to just a few.

By and large the most popular are English beech and apple, both of which are easily recognizable when you know what to look for.

Beech is also commonly spelled beach by poor spellers like me. I’d also like to point out it’s kind of silly in the advanced state of humanity that we haven’t dropped one of the two. Regardless, BEECH is the more common wood used for hand saws and early backsaws. I’d also guess that it is most common for early hand tools in general, like moulding and other types of planes.

The color tends to run from a bluish off white when it’s first cut to a light honey as it ages. It has some very distinguishing features that I’ll call “flecks”. These can also look like specks or spots when quarter sawed. You’ll note the one picture is a block of beech and from the base of a Stanley transition plane.  As noted on one of my earlier posts, I spoke with some tool collectors that used them as fuel for an annual fire at the NH tool meet. Not until Stanley started buying them back to release them on the bicentennial did they gain any value. Even today I normally buy mine at tool meets for around $15.00, but I’m told they are often for less.

I find I can get around a dozen or so horn repairs out of longer No 8 style, so even if I pay a little extra it’s no big deal.  A few tips, don’t lead off with, “I’m going to cut this up.” Also, standard rules apply for buying wood tools: look for cracks and warped soles. If you’re lucky enough to find a few, check the grain.  Depending on when Stanley made them, some use threaded inserts. You can back them out with a flat head screwdriver.  Otherwise, you’ll be sharpening your saw shortly after.

Apple is the other popular wood used in handles and it was mostly used by US saw makers.  You’ll find most of the backsaw handles made by Disston and the other big guys after the mid 1800’s.

The color is redder than beech and closer to what you might expect from cherry or other fruit woods like pear. The grain structure is also finer and often has a bit more wave to it.  Finding a vintage source for apple is a bit tricky and I don’t find using old handles for repairs works well. It’s also a little creepy, like feeding chickens to chickens. It’s just not right. So far I’ve been happy with my results of current apple wood to vintage stock. I’ve also found pear works well too. It’s a little tighter grain and for some saws it’s a perfect match.

Other than these two you’ll run into a few other species used – walnut or rosewood being the next in line for popularity. Those two are a little easier to pick out. Walnut was very popular on the early 19th century lower grade or commercial grade as I think of them. I find a lot of the cone nut saws from Wheeler Madden & Clemson or even Disston used them.  Because of the dark tone, matching back to currently harvested trees isn’t too bad.

The issue will be closing the grain before putting on some type of coat. There’s a multitude of ways to achieve this; sanding sealer and grain fillers are just some I’ve used. I’ve had good luck with Behlen brand, that’s now owned by Mohawk, and using grain fillers from LMI who sell and supply to Luthiers.

Really good finishing is an art form in itself. If possible, it’s best to talk with a local supplier, club, or friend. The tips and tricks from the guys refinishing furniture and instruments are gold. Google to your heart’s content.

I can’t say a lot about rosewood as I’ve not done any repairs with it yet. I’ve had a few Victory saws but they had complete handles. I would say the issue with the grain would be similar to walnut.

As always, if you run into a snag feel free to leave a comment or email me.

Joe Federici
Steward of Saw Craft

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